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PI­ANIST OLGA KERN: Oct. 13 and 16, Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter

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Pi­anist Olga Kern

Olga Kern’s ca­reer started rolling when she be­came the co-gold medal­ist at the Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion in 2001. It was a hotly de­bated de­ci­sion — not be­cause of her pi­anism per se, but be­cause it was the first time that com­pe­ti­tion’s jury named two gold medal­ists in­stead of one. She ac­cord­ingly shared the honor with Stanislav Iouden­itch, and both ben­e­fited from the same blip such a com­pe­ti­tion might pro­vide, which is smaller than the Cliburn would have you imag­ine. To the pi­anists them­selves fell the on­go­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­vel­op­ing their ca­reers, and there is no ques­tion which has tri­umphed more. Iouden­itch teaches at a con­ser­va­tory near Kansas City and seems to per­form mostly as a mem­ber of a trio. Kern, on the other hand, has shown dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion to es­tab­lish her­self as a solo artist. She has not bro­ken through to the in­ter­na­tional A-list of pi­anists who reg­u­larly ap­pear with the world’s top or­ches­tras, but she makes clear that she is hun­gry to do so; and un­til she does, she keeps busy mak­ing the rounds of re­spectable re­gional or­ches­tras.

Dur­ing her most re­cent visit to town, spon­sored by the Santa Fe Sym­phony, she played a solo recital on Oct. 13 and ap­peared with the or­ches­tra in Rach­mani­noff’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 3 on Oct. 16, in both cases at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. In each con­cert she dis­played for­mi­da­ble tech­nique, im­pres­sive drive, con­sis­tent char­ac­ter, and a win­ning stage per­son­al­ity. She left no doubt that Rus­sian mu­sic is her strong suit, and she put it across with mus­cu­lar­ity that could verge on the vol­canic. There is some­thing in­spir­ing about the sheer tenac­ity of her play­ing. She re­minded me of an Olympic racer dash­ing down the track, not par­tic­u­larly el­e­gant but intent on giv­ing her all, come what may. Rach­mani­noff’s Third Pi­ano Con­certo is a war horse, and she played it like one, charg­ing fear­lessly through the field of bat­tle, break­ing into re­mark­able sprints dur­ing her ca­den­zas, dis­play­ing the stamina re­quired to dom­i­nate ev­ery note of this de­mand­ing work right through the huge sonor­ity of the fi­nal pages.

Th­ese are the skills that win com­pe­ti­tions, and they are part of what goes into great Rach­mani­noff play­ing. What we didn’t hear in this in­ter­pre­ta­tion was ten­der­ness, and I am not sure there is much point to the Third Con­certo without it. One missed it the most in the In­ter­mezzo move­ment, where one would have been grate­ful if the skit­tish waltz­ing to­ward the move­ment’s end had achieved some­thing ap­proach­ing sprightly or feath­ery.

Kern showed greater breadth in her play­ing of eight Rach­mani­noff pre­ludes that launched the sec­ond half of her solo recital. A float­ing tone in­hab­ited the right-hand melody in the G-ma­jor Pre­lude (Op. 32, No. 5), its tim­bre hap­pily dif­fer­en­ti­ated from that of the left-hand ac­com­pa­ni­ment; it brought to mind the idea of “Rus­sian De­bussy.” Else­where in the set, one was more struck by the strength of her fore­arms and, es­pe­cially in the fa­mous G-mi­nor Pre­lude (Op. 23, No. 5), her mas­tery of oc­tave play­ing and note rep­e­ti­tions, which she pulled off im­pos­ingly and even fi­nessed with mu­si­cal shad­ing. That au­gured well for Balakirev’s Is­lamey, which con­cluded the recital. But in be­tween, she ex­panded the mood through a pair of etudes by Scri­abin (Op. 42, Nos. 4 and 5). Both were ad­mirably played, the first elic­it­ing her most po­etic play­ing of the week, the sec­ond sim­mer­ing with neu­rotic fever. Is­lamey is no­to­ri­ous for its dif­fi­culty, but it is pre­cisely the sort of piece that draws on Kern’s strengths. She plunged into it at about as fast a pace as I can re­mem­ber hear­ing; and if she did some­times bend the tempo as the piece pro­gressed, it was not due to the oc­taves and rep­e­ti­tions. It is also a fin­ger­twister, and she did seem to ne­go­ti­ate all the notes up to the fi­nal flour­ish. Her two en­cores were both ef­fec­tive: Prokofiev’s C-mi­nor Etude (Op. 2, No. 4), in a di­a­bol­i­cal read­ing, and Rach­mani­noff’s Mo­ment

mu­si­cal in E mi­nor (Op. 16, No. 4; she also played it as lagniappe after her con­certo per­for­mance).

The first half of Kern’s recital was less grat­i­fy­ing. Three Scar­latti sonatas were vic­tims of some pian­is­tic bul­ly­ing, with the C-ma­jor Sonata (K.159) be­ing ap­proached as if it were Stravin­sky’s Petrushka. Beethoven’s Wald­stein Sonata got a propul­sive per­for­mance, but the work’s niceties would have been more au­di­ble if bal­ances had been less weighted to the left hand and tex­tures had been gen­er­ally light­ened.

Back to the or­ches­tra con­cert. The guest con­duc­tor was Ignat Solzhen­it­syn, who led the en­sem­ble in some of its best work in re­cent mem­ory. Rim­sky-Kor­sakov’s

Rus­sian Easter Over­ture had a dark, bur­nished hue — Mu­sorgskian, re­ally — and was kept tightly in check un­til pent-up en­ergy was re­leased at its vig­or­ous close. Es­pe­cially fine solo con­tri­bu­tions came from vi­o­lin­ist David Fel­berg, cel­list Joel Beck­tell, and trom­bon­ist Amanda Hud­son, who al­lowed a touch of a jazzy in­flec­tion in some of her phrases (wasn’t ex­pect­ing that!). The or­ches­tra’s am­bi­tious prin­ci­pal piece was Si­belius’ Sym­phony No. 5, which Solzhen­it­syn led with sure-footed pac­ing. The strings ef­fec­tively ren­dered the “icy” fla­vor of the somber first move­ment — me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal de­scrip­tions are de rigueur in Si­belius — and the fi­nale had a real dra­matic sweep and, in places, a sense of the vi­sion­ary. — James M. Keller

Olga Kern

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